For stationary aerial observation the means employed in England, before the war, were the captive spherical balloon and the man-lifting kite. Many successful experiments with the man-lifting kite, or groups of kites, had been carried out, especially by Major B. F. S. Baden-Powell, during the closing years of the nineteenth century. But both the balloon and the kite had serious faults. The kite cannot be efficiently operated in a wind of less than twenty miles an hour, and the spherical balloon cannot be operated in a wind of more than twenty miles an hour. The balloon except in the lightest of breezes, and the kite at all times, give a very unsteady platform for observation, so that field-glasses are difficult to use.
The merits of both kite and balloon were combined and the faults of both were remedied in the kite balloon. The attachment of a kite to the upper hemisphere of an ordinary spherical balloon, on the cable side, to prevent the balloon from rotating in a wind, had been proposed by a private inventor as early as 1885, but nothing came of it.
The kite balloon which was used in the war was invented in 1894 by Major von Parseval, the German airship designer, and Captain von Sigsfeld. This balloon is sausage shaped ; the cable is attached to the forward portion; the rear end carries an air-rudder, and is weighted down by the car, or basket. Extending outwards at right angles on both sides of the rear portion of the balloon is a wind-sail which does the office of a kite and assists in preventing the rudder end of the balloon from being too much depressed by the weight of the car. The balloon is divided into two segments; the forward segment is filled with gas, the rear segment is kept full of air through a circular entrance attached, facing the wind, to the under surface of the balloon. But the steadying of the balloon is mainly achieved by the air-rudder, which is another inflated sausage, curved round the under side of the rear end of the balloon, and automatically filled with air through a valve at its forward end. The kite balloon is the ugliest thing that man has ever seen when he looks up at the sky, but it serves its purpose.
Before the war, kite balloons, often called 'Drachen' balloons, had been a German secret. The French and Belgians had obtained drawings of them, and at the outbreak of war had some few ready for use. Moreover, the French were at work on their 'Cacquot' balloon, an improvement on the 'Drachen' in that it made use of a new and more convenient stabilizing device. Where the 'Drachen' had used a long and clumsy string of parachute streamers attached to the tail, the ' Cacquot' achieved the same result by means of stabilizing fins attached to the balloon itself.
In October 1914 Wing Commander Maitland was sent to Belgium in command of a captive balloon detachment, to carry out aerial spotting for the guns of monitors working off the coast between Nieuport and Coxyde. His two balloons, which were spherical, proved to be useless in a strong wind. In January 1915 he made acquaintance with a 'Drachen' balloon which the Belgians were using in the neighbourhood of Alveringheim. He. was allowed to inspect this balloon and to take measurements and photographs.
General Birdwood, who had been sent by Lord Kitchener to the Dardanelles to report on the possibilities of a landing, and Admiral de Robeck, who was in command of the naval forces there, telegraphed to the War Office and the Admiralty that a man-lifting kite or a captive balloon would be of great use to the navy for spotting long-range fire and detecting concealed batteries. The Admiralty at once appropriated a tramp steamer, S.S. Manica, which was lying at Manchester, fitted her with a rough and ready apparatus, and on the 27th of March dispatched her with a kite-balloon section under Flight Commander J. D. Mackworth to the Dardanelles. This was the first kite balloon used by us in the war, and, it is believed, the first kite-balloon ship fitted out by any navy. The observation work done from the Manica was good and useful, especially during the earlier phase of the operations, and the difficulties encountered suggested many improvements in the balloon and in the ship. Orders were given for six balloon ships to be fitted out.
Admiral Beatty in August 1915, recommended that the work of aerial observation for the fleet should be done by kite balloons, towed by vessels accompanying the Battle Cruiser Squadron, and some trials were made which demonstrated the value of this suggestion. But here again very elaborate experiments were necessary before authorizing any large programme of construction, and in the meantime production on a considerable scale had become difficult, for the kite balloon, which was first manufactured in this country to the order of the navy, was already in great demand by the army for use on the western front.
As early as April 1915 the Army Council had asked the Admiralty to supply kite balloons for aerial observation with the expeditionary force in France, and by August of that year five kite-balloon sections had gone overseas and were doing invaluable work on the western front. At this point the kite-balloon sections working with the army were taken over by the War Office, but the Admiralty continued to provide the necessary material and equipment. Great Britain was involved in the greatest land war she had ever known, and the navy, with all the wealth of its inventive resources, stood by to help the army.
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